NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITISH TRAVELERS IN THE NEW WORLD by Christine DeVine, ed., Reviewed by Frank Christianson
 

NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITISH TRAVELERS IN THE NEW WORLD
Ed. Christine DeVine
(Ashgate, 2013) x + 319 pp.
Reviewed by Frank Christianson on 2014-02-07.

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In recent years transatlantic literary studies has expanded the scope and variety of its inquiries to emphasize the multiethnic and polyglot nature of the Atlantic sphere in every phase of its cultural history. But this book demonstrates the ongoing need for examining Anglo-American relations as a mutually constituting sphere of influence and exchange. Beginning with Christine DeVine's able introduction and continuing through each of the contributed chapters, this collection illustrates what Thomas Peyser has described --in Utopia and Cosmopolis (1998)--as the tandem relationship between the local and the global during a period when nationalist sentiment was fomented by an increasing sense of globalism. As DeVine puts it, the travel narratives considered in this volume show how "Britain viewed itself as part of the transatlantic world during a crucial time in the development of Anglo-American relations" (3). In other words, in its account of the New World, nineteenth-century British travel writing also expresses a perspective of home. Of course, this is a truism on its face; but the volume ploughs fertile ground in describing the rich and varied ways that travel writing reflected British interests while exploring new physical and cultural terrain. As part of a process of national self-definition, the enterprise of nineteenth-century travel literature embodies to a unique degree what Paul Giles has termed "the politics of traversal" (The Atlantic Republic, 2006).

The five chapters of Part I, "Imagining a New World," aim to show "how America caught the imagination of some travel writers" (13). Since every essay in the book has this same objective, the organizing category of Part I overlaps with those of Parts II and III, which are respectively devoted to the political and regional features of travel writing. Nevertheless, though all three categories overlap (something all too common in books of this kind), the collection conveys a sense of conversation among the primary materials and their interpreters. The cumulative effect suggests a coherent tradition, with its own aesthetic and rhetorical hallmarks, emerging in response to a common set of political and cultural imperatives.

Beginning with Matthew Kaiser's intriguing meditation on the California of Robert Louis Stevenson and John Muir, we get a sense of the possibilities of landscape. The ludic vision of the California frontier as a place of both death and play draws Stevenson back to the Scottish Highlands in "cross--pollinating daydreams" (33) that reshape his aesthetic sensibilities. Stevenson's fellow Scot, Muir, was likewise inspired by the frontier. Kaiser finds a politically potent formula in both of their idle encounters with a California wilderness that also held the promise of gold to fuel the thriving commercial enterprise of California, Inc. Their celebration of a cosmic playground amounts to what Jeffrey Franklin has called serious play: a playfulness that counters the instrumentalizing vision of an emergent corporate culture (Serious Play, 1999). Often quite lyrical in its own right, Kaiser's essay compellingly shows how travel gave British writers a means to invent the New World while reinventing themselves.

Other essays in Part I detail British travelers' efforts to forge a new aesthetic and political vision out of their American travel experiences. Most notably, John McBratney's discussion of American Notes portrays Dickens as a cosmopolitan who hoped to mediate between the British and American systems through a new form of "transatlantic republicanism" (85). Similarly, Kendall Mclellan's reading of Society in America considers how Harriet Martineau assumes a cosmopolitan distance from her subject: adopting a comparativist method, she judges contemporary American practice against the theories of the nation's founders. Since she approaches travel narrative as political romance, her treatment of American political character is relatively judicious. In these and other cases, however, the writerly persona is strained by the exigencies of travel as well as by the act of writing about it. Indeed, the process of fashioning a narrative perspective, with all its negotiations, emerges as one of the primary, and most productive, preoccupations of the collection.

Building on concerns raised in the earlier essays on Dickens and Martineau, Part II, "Politics and its Discontents," considers how British travelers faced what Elizabeth Deis and Lowell Frye call the "Condition-of-America Question." In their own contribution Deis and Frye helpfully explain why Britain's own constitutional and social crises provoked the question, which was posed with increasing urgency in the 1830s and '40s. In what they describe as a pattern of "call and response" between published travel narratives and their British reviews, the authors find surrogates for the intensifying debates over reform; in particular, they show, verbal portraits of America by Basil Hall and Frances Trollope inaugurated a tradition of politicized travel writing that became fodder for the constant salvos between the Whig and Tory periodicals. Subsequent chapters in Part II largely extend earlier essays rather than developing new ground as they circle back to Trollope, Hall, and Dickens. Nathalie Vanfasse, for example, shows how Dickens works within and against Hall's comparative framework, which emphasized the exoticism and coarseness of American culture, as he sought remedies to what he perceived to be an English political system in decline.

Part III, which includes the most focused set of essays, considers how travel writers gauged the regional sociology of the slave states from a British perspective. To show how Romantic landscape aesthetics indirectly informed an ideological critique of slavery, M.B. Hackler draws upon landscape studies ranging from Christopher Mulvey's Anglo-American Landsapes (1983) to Ian Finseth's recent ecocritical examinations of slavery literature (Shades of Green, 2009). Following Finseth, Hackler traces the process whereby landscape becomes a rhetorical commonplace for expressions of moral discrimination: as British travelers head south, Hackler documents, they find precisely what they anticipate: an invariable correspondence between the land and the moral order it supports. For a less deterministic assessment of American slavery, Debra Anna Logan complements Kendall McClellan's earlier discussion of gender in Martineau's writing with a study of her abolitionist efforts. As Logan demonstrates, Martineau's abolitionism elevated her from a popularizer to a social critic whose views acquired transformative authority. Turning from American audiences and their response to British visitors, Susan Casteras shows how Victorian ideological and aesthetic sensibilities dictated British representations of American culture--in this case by artists whose paintings tried to capture the slave experience in the 1850s.

In examining works drawn chiefly from the middle decades of the 1830s through the 1850s, this collection aims to highlight key historical contexts in the evolution of travel writing. From British reform debates to abolitionism, Devine suggests, Anglo-American travel literature worked to shape the historical factors that motivated the travel in the first place. Given the reciprocal nature of transatlantic Anglophone travel, however, the project's exclusive focus on British travel writers limits its scope, as Devine acknowledges. Indeed, an equally sizable companion work could survey a set of American travel writings from Washington Irving's vignettes of English life in his Sketch Book (1819-20) to Jack London's portrayal of London's East End in People of the Abyss (1903); on the basis of such a survey, one could productively compare the respective cultural nationalisms. While Americans writing of Britain may have been driven by different political imperatives, their quest for a mythic Britain, like British travelers' search for an ideal America (in Devine's account of them), would presumably be accompanied by a similar investment in the home front.

Besides the limitations of its scope, the conceptual rigor of the volume is somewhat uneven: adopting a more descriptive historical mode, a number of essays gesture toward but do not engage the larger questions raised in DeVine's introduction.

At its best, however, the collection shows how travel literature can reframe the nation-based approach to literary studies. This kind of transatlantic study heeds Paul Jay's injunction to complicate the nation-state paradigm by "foregrounding its history and function for the nation-state" (PMLA, 2002, 42). This book is a key contribution to the larger dialogue about literature and nationalism. While the collection works to expand the context for understanding better known figures such as Martineau, Trollope, and Dickens, it also usefully illuminates the work of lesser-known travel writers such as Basil Hall and Isabella Bird. In exploring the further reaches of nineteenth-century British travel writing, the volume invites us to read it as a history of nineteenth-century cultural nationalism. That history explains what British travelers sought in the New World, and why. It thereby demonstrates how New World travel figured in an ongoing domestic contest over the present and future of British society.

Frank Christianson is Associate Professor of English at Brigham Young University.


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